On most days, Virginia sat behind a desk at the Champaign County Bank and Trust. She spent her workdays keeping ledgers and turning the crank on a machine whose gears could add up to $9,999,999.99. When she got home, Virginia kept on counting. One man, two boys (Joe and his brother, Steve), four steaks, one pan, four potatoes, one cup of milk, two teaspoons of butter, four hours till bedtime. Four feet eleven inches, size-eight shoes. With each new school year and season, her healthy, freckled son presented new puzzles. He had a mouth of mostly new permanent teeth, with perhaps one last baby canine or premolar still left to drop. His energy was boundless, protomasculine and unfocused, as evidenced by the ever-growing collection of bugs and other artifacts in his bedroom, filling his room with the sugary, unnatural aroma of preserved death; and sometimes, the musky, fermented scent of the urine and wet fur of the living mammals he brought into the house from the wild. More than two hundred and fifty butterflies in his collection. The rescued baby rabbits she helped him feed with an eyedropper. Mom is the mother rabbit, Steve! Look at Mom! She kept waiting for him to grow out of his collecting and wandering stage.
* * *
For the rest of Joe Sanderson’s life, butterfly collecting will be a metaphor for curiosity and adventure. When he’s on battlefields distant from Urbana and the United States, he’ll jokingly call himself a “butterfly collector” and say his M16 rifle is his “butterfly net.” At the age of eleven, he keeps picture frames with his captured and pinned butterflies, and also jars filled with snakeskins. He can identify the castes in his ant farm. He has a stuffed oriole, dried maple leaves and beetles. Intricate, startling and perfect things that remind him of the infinite variety of the living world. The wing of a monarch butterfly when he blows it up five hundred times in his father’s microscope and sees rows of delicate scales, a feathery field of saffron-colored grass. The exoskeleton of a beetle, and the stacked-coin patterns in the snake’s rattle.
Now, in this small ecosystem tucked between the city and the cornfields, wounded sparrows died and putrefied, the caterpillars secreted smelly vapors, and the short-tailed shrews and meadow voles dropped feces. Cycles of living things. The mud inside his shoes made music as he marched. Swish, issh, swish, issh.
“This is a good spot,” Joe told Jim. “There’s water nearby. And all these shrubs down here. You catch them near what they eat.”
A stiff breeze came rushing into the grove of willows, cottonwoods and oaks again, causing the branches and leaves over his head to fill with a sound that made him think of sand falling through an hourglass. The tall pillar of air around Joe shifted westward, then eastward, with him and Jim and all the other living things inside it moving in the same cadence, every leaf and every branch, every bird, every nest. The swaying stopped, and a warm air was born from the stillness, the final hot humid breath of a Midwestern summer. Joe saw a brown, beating stain in the shadowy light, a butterfly rising and falling on currents of air as if careening down some invisible roller coaster. It passed a foot or so from his left ear and came to rest upon a shrub. Quickly, expertly, Joe plopped his net down and the fat butterfly was his, spotted wings beating furiously in the white mesh. “It’s a silver-spotted skipper,” Joe said, and he held the net closed with one hand and reached into the pocket of his collector’s jacket with the other, retrieving a jar and a wad of cotton, which he moistened with ether. The butterfly fluttered its wings in a final convulsion. So cruel to kill a living thing.